When the green flag waved on the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne each harbored realistic championship aspirations. All of them expected to win races and each expected to qualify for the Chase with relative ease.
Now reality has set in and the trio is not only winless, but for a variety of reasons – both of their own doing and some out of their control – they find themselves well down the championship order.
Here is a look at how the three got in the position they're in and what their respective chances are to recover from their disappointing starts:
Points position: 16th
What happened: Although there were signs of life at Fontana, when Busch led 80 laps and finished second to Tony Stewart, for the most part the dominance typically demonstrated by Busch has been missing.
He hasn't finished in the top 10 in consecutive weeks and on tracks where he typically runs well – Daytona, Bristol and Martinsville – he hasn't finished better than 17th (although to be fair, the wrecks at the two short tracks weren't at all his fault).
Prognosis: Because Busch has won no less than three races in each of the last four years, and because he is one of the few drivers on the circuit who is fully capable of winning races in bunches, I fully expect him to have no problems racing his way into the Chase.
Points position: 21st
What happened: More than anything, bad luck is the culprit for the worst start of Gordon's career. First, there was the blown motor in the season-opening Daytona 500 while the No. 24 car was running solidly in the top five. This was followed by his well-documented wreck at Bristol after slight contact with his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., while again running in the top 10.
And just this past Sunday, an all but certain top-two finish went by the wayside when a caution came out with two laps to go. On the ensuing restart, Gordon was victimized by Clint Bowyer's bold move into Turn 1 and he ended up 15th in the final rundown.
Prognosis: Assuming Gordon can shed his bad luck, he should be able to fight his way back up the standings. But if he can't and he's forced to rely on winning races to snag a wild card, that could prove to be problematic. In two of the last four years, the four-time Sprint Cup champion has failed to win a single race.
That being said, I think Gordon makes the Chase one way or another – either because he's in the top 10 or via wild card berth.
Points position: 31st
What happened: Kahne has struggled with over-aggressiveness in his first year driving for Hendrick Motorsports, which led to him wrecking at both Phoenix and Bristol, where he finished 34th and 37th, respectively.
It also hasn't helped that he got swept up in an accident at Daytona and blew a motor at Martinsville. All told, Kahne has four finishes of 29th or worse and, more telling, has failed to lead a single lap despite notching two pole positions.
Prognosis: Kahne is tied with Kevin Harvick for the best average starting position, indicating he certainly has the speed needed to put together a string of races where he runs and finishes inside the top 10.
But unless the turnaround happens soon, it might not matter how fast Kahne runs on pole day. Every year since its inception, a marquee driver has missed the Chase – and thus far it's starting to look like Kahne will be this year's big name to miss out on NASCAR's version of the playoffs.